In a recent local appearance, Olympic gold medalist Shannon Miller touched on the critical importance of target setting: “Are you training for a 5K? Set your goals. Are you working toward a promotion? Set your goals. Battling cancer? Set your goals, see them through.”
At Prism, we couldn’t agree more: goal setting must be a part of any successful improvement endeavor. Our strategic planning and school improvement processes each include explicit target setting steps. And while we have not won any gold medals, we can demonstrate the compelling value of target setting.
Lockport’s plummeting dropout rate
In the summer of 2008, the Lockport City School District knew it had a problem: nearly one in five students enrolling in the district as 9th graders was dropping out. The district’s strategic planning team set an aggressive improvement target: to reduce the dropout rate from 19% to 3% by 2012. The target was widely shared with the school board, staff and community. The high school leadership team developed and implemented a focused plan and there was much hard work. Four years on, they have achieved their target. Some 68 fewer students dropped out by June of 2012 than would have had the dropout rate remained flat at 19%. (For more information on Lockport’s strategy, see Reducing Dropout Rates & Increasing Graduation Rates: a Case Study.)
Elmsford’s rapidly rising on-time graduation rate
In the summer of 2009, Elmsford Public Schools initiated a strategic planning process. Trend data showed unacceptable four-year graduation rates hovering in the low to mid-70% range. The planning team, after much debate, agreed to set a target of 90% on-time graduation. The target was widely shared with the school board, staff and community. This goal became a strong focus for district leadership and for the high school improvement team. Here is a sample of their strategies:
- Complete a root cause analysis to determine factors impeding on-time graduation.
- Implement a formal process to identify, track and intervene with at-risk students.
- Increase academic rigor within all classes and provide additional opportunities to take AP, college-credit bearing and honors classes.
In just three years of hard work and focused implementation, Elmsford has hit its target dead on.
Dryden’s dropout rate breakthrough
In the Spring of 2008, the Dryden Central School District initiated a strategic planning process. Trend data showed deteriorating performance: graduation rates had bottomed out at 65% and the dropout rate had spiked to 17%. The strategic planning team anguished over the target-setting process. Some members argued for aggressive targets; some, for incremental, achievable targets. Others expressed serious reservations about setting dropout rate targets where they believed they had little or no control. Eventually they reached consensus for aggressive, “stretch” targets: a 95% on-time graduation rate and a 0% dropout rate, later revised to 2%. The targets were widely shared with the school board, staff and community. Hard work and a focused strategy produced immediate improvement in the graduation rate: within three school years the graduation rate rose to 84%. However, the dropout rate proved a more intractable challenge until the 2012 data revealed the breakthrough Dryden was seeking: the dropout rate is down to 2.5%.
“Set your goals, see them through.”
Many teams struggle with target setting or avoid it entirely: “What if we don’t hit our targets?” “Are we setting targets for things we cannot control?” “Shouldn’t we set targets we know we can achieve?” We at Prism defer to the Olympic gold medalist: “Staying motivated means sticking to your goals and revising them as needed.”
Targets provide multiple benefits. They focus resources and attention. They allow you to progress monitor and assess the effectiveness of your strategies and implementation efforts. And, as Shannon Miller attests, they motivate, in some cases to higher levels of performance than the organization ever believed possible.